Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and James Moore in Susan Marshall’s “Kiss,” being presented as part of “Director’s Choice,” through Sunday, March 23. Photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and James Moore in Susan Marshall’s “Kiss,” being presented as part of “Director’s Choice,” through Sunday, March 23. Photo by Angela Sterling

Peter Boal has tapped four contemporary pieces that take Pacific Northwest Ballet’s (PNB) current “Directors Choice” to the edges of ballet’s confines and beyond. The electrifying, mixed-repertory showcase features three modern works by female choreographers and a world-premiere by Spanish-born Alejandro Cerrudo.

Opening the performance is the upbeat “Take Five…More or Less,” which pairs lively improv-based dance with the toe-tapping jazz of legendary musicians Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck. Tony Award-winning Broadway director and choreographer Susan Stroman concocted this very ensemble piece in 2008 for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Laugh Out Loud! Festival. Stroman was exploring the way in which some of the best art happens when dancers and musicians, who can’t help but want to perform, begin improvising on their five-minute break.

When the curtain rose at the top of the piece on opening night, the audience erupted in applause for Kaori Nakamura, alone on stage — before she moved a muscle. However, she earned the applause with her usual levitating grace. Also of particular note were Lesley Rausch’s femme fatale and Kiyon Gaines’ debonair soft shoe.

Susan Marshall’s “Kiss,” first performed at PNB in 2006, is as much performance art as it is dance. Two dancers, dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts, are suspended above the floor in aerial harnesses constructed specifically for this piece about love’s pleasures and torments. The harnesses enhance the sense of risk in their relationship while allowing the dancers to defy the power of gravity — going entirely limp in mid-air (literally “falling in love”), entwining around one another, separating, flying away and irresistibly drawing back together.

Carla Körbes and James Moore were arresting on opening night, their movements to Arvo Pärt’s haunting “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” embodying the sensual heat and addictive yearning of overwhelming love.

Stravinsky’s primordial “Rite of Spring” powers Molissa Fenley’s “State of Darkness,” a solo piece that puts the dancer through some brutal paces for more than 30 nonstop minutes. As Jonathan Porretta repeated Fenley’s movement sequence over and over again on opening night, the original sacrifice of a young woman in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” transforms into solitary ritual and the boundaries of our ability to endure.

First performed at Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2007, “State of Darkness” is a tour-de-force for either a male or female dancer. Boal was one of the first to dance this piece, and Porretta justifiably received the only full standing ovation of the evening. The audience was riveted as Porretta alternated between shuddering under the weight of impending sacrifice and hurling himself against that devastating future.

Closing the performance, the world premiere of Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Memory Glow,” commissioned by Pacific Northwest Ballet, drew only a partial standing ovation. Part of the trouble may have been that, to some of us, the piece felt disconcertingly suggestive of abusive relationships and domestic violence by men against women.

The men appeared to be controlling, not allowing the women to leave no matter how much they tried, slinging them around and dragging them across the floor. Some movements looked like slaps or hits, and in one case, several men ganged up on one woman.

“Memory Glow” seemed to be about imbalance of power, but it was difficult to tell whether the evocation of physical violence was intentional. In any event, Cerrudo’s new work was not as indelible as the other three.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Director’s Choice” performs at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St.), through Sunday, March 23. For tickets or information, visit www.pnb.org or call (206) 441-2424.

MAGGIE LARRICK is a former editor of the Queen Anne & Magnolia News. To comment on this review, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.